Monday 13 April 2020

Spring Journal by Jonathan Gibbs (Cantos I-IV)

A Leap in the Dark is a twice-weekly online gathering of writers, poets, musicians, performers and others on Fridays and Saturdays.

A regular highlight is the reading of the latest canto of Spring Journal by Jonathan Gibbs, read by Michael Hughes.

Prompted by and responding to Louis Macneice's Autumn Journal (1939), Jonathan's work-in-progress is a poetic response to the coronavirus crisis and, like the original, combines private and public themes in a humane, generous and intensely moving way. This is poetry as social commentary, urgent and necessary, and it's an uncanny experience for the reader to be living within the events navigated by Jonathan in this work - one feels part of it, and somehow accountable. Nothing in my reading life quite matches the sense of engagement I feel with the poem and the world it describes. This is an important work and one that future readers will turn to if they want to know how things were for us, here, now.

With the author's kind permission, here are the first four cantos of Spring Journal.  There are twenty more to come and the next - Canto V - will feature in A Leap in the Dark on Friday 17th April.

Spring Journal
by Jonathan Gibbs  
(after Louis MacNeice)


Close and slow, spring is starting in London, 
   Climbing up through the thickset lawns that, though too wet to cut, 
Still taunt the lives of retired accountants and asset managers 
   Who would have been out there by now for certain, but
Strange thoughts stay their hands from the Barbour on its hook,
   Likewise the ball-thrower, poop-bags and lead by the door,
For this spring brings tidings and forebodings from China, Italy, Spain,
   And no one knows what anyone's allowed to do any more.
And it’s March coming in as the last daffs leave,
   And the first leaves of the first nasturtiums, blithely ignorant of the farce,
And the elderly lady popping out to Tesco despite her daughter’s anguished pleas,
   Raising her eyes to the noise of the few remaining ’planes that pass
Westwards from Heathrow, which is no longer owed an extra runway.
   For so it is we learn to live in air that’s good to breathe,
And the canals in Venice running clear, with little fishes swimming
   And the tourists at Marco Polo wondering when it is they’ll get to leave.
And it’s Friday night in London where the pubs are all still open
   For the blessed who think it’s fine to drink then loll home in an Uber.
Do they raise a glass to those still stuck onboard the MS Braemar
   Turned away from every port till they were taken in by Cuba?
And all the inherited worries, social anxieties and taxes, 
   And whether Stella will marry and what to do with Dick 
And the branch of the family that lost their money in Equitable Life 
   And is this tightness in the chest merely asthmatic?
And the growth of vulgarity, the electric scooters on the pavement
   And the rising tide of plastic on the beach 
And the hiking LGBTQ+ lovers with thoughts directed 
   Neither to God nor Sovereign Nation but each to each.
And the queue for Sainsbury’s this morning was a sight to behold
   And the line of shoppers with their trolleys
Running right around the car park – “At ten to seven! On a Saturday!” –
   Is just the highest tide mark of our ongoing infinite follies.
So I’m Tweeting this from the queue for the tills trailing up aisle 27
   (Plenty of shampoo and hair spray),
And there’s eggs and bread and bleach and chips and lasagne,
   But even those might be gone by now I dare say.
And the question of privilege raises its head,
   As of course it does,
In every aspect of the current situation, and what
   Each one of us does
And can possibly do is permanently reframed:
   The tins I’ll decant
From my trolley into the food bank by the exit
   Are, let’s face it, scant
Atonement for my middle-class security,
   And the gofundme 
Donations for artists and writers
   Faced with shock redundancy.
So let’s hear it for Picturehouse cinemas, sacking staff as
   A matter of course,
And let’s hear it for the Coylumbridge Hotel in Aviemore, which 
   “Apologised for any upset caused”
After laying off and making homeless a dozen workers in what they called
   An “administrative error”,
God knows what goes through these people’s heads as they write these letters, 
   If they understand the terror.
The terror? Is it terror? This fluctuating fear, worry, anxiety
   All laid one over the other like card laid over card,
And everyone I speak to seems broadly fine, but there are others online
   That this widening crisis is hitting more squarely and hard.
And I am in the car too now and the sun is out as we are heading east
   Bound for the Essex coast, and the shuck of wave on shingle,
The visit to my wife’s parents, to deliver essential items and offer solace
   But not to hug or kiss or even mingle.
And so we sit in our parked cars and eat fish and chips from cardboard boxes
   Looking out at the too many people on the esplanade, and the not-enough sky
For we cannot eat in the flat, and the communal room is closed,
   And this is the English way.
And the drive back, yawning, with the sun too soon low in the sky, 
   Though it's now that it gives its most perfect and singular light,
    Painting the winter wheat a rich green-gold and dotting the turned brown clay
   With Canaletto white.
And as I stand pissing against the hedge, I notice the first hawthorn blossoms,
   Simple specks in a complex pattern,
Like you might find on wallpaper, a picturesque lattice of flower and branch,
   Or on a cushion or curtain.
And so back to London and its own revolving, evolving uncertainties:
   The density of population, the space and air we share,
Where the warm spring wind blows us dangerously together 
   And infects our complexes and cares.


In the back garden the newly hatched bees 
   Act out their strange low-intensity frenzy.
How odd this sight can put the human heart at ease:
   Their feeble, frantic, ceaseless pass
From flower to flower, barely stopping to guzzle at each.
   Is this not pleasurable? Is there no joy to be taken?
You are bees! Those are flowers! Can you not teach
   Us to be more like you, or just less like ourselves?
We who were up like good Christians to Lauds
   To try and get our online orders in
Ahead of the hordes.
   Good news! You are number eighty-three thousand, six hundred and
Forty-seven in the queue! 
   And as dawn breaks into the bedroom the screen is something
That seems to come between the world and you.
   The screen exists outside of time, 
It does not come into leaf, 
   Like something almost being said
Its open tabs do not relax and spread,
   Nothing in them is like a kind of grief,
The screen cares not for your sleep, your rest, the ache in your flesh
   Its only trick, the only thing it seems to say, 
Is that you must refresh, refresh, refresh.
   Yet while the shops are still open we’ll go out, to collect
Our honourably ordered books,
   Though even this transaction now comes limned with distrust, 
And grim swift sideways looks.
   And this too is hard: parked up in Eastbourne, becalmed,
In view of the sea;
   The horizon splitting the windscreen high in my eye-line
The sky a pale blank blue and serene,
   And I’m on a mission to deliver to my ninety-year old grandmother
A Google Nexus 7,
   So she can see as well as hear the family who cannot care for her now,
Cannot hug her even,
   So I come armed with disposable gloves
And anti-bacterial wipes,
   My job: to log in to next door’s WiFi, then teach her
The touches, the presses and swipes
   That have become second nature to us, but that she has long laughed off,
“I should have got on that train when I had time,”
   She said, when pressed, but now we’re forcing her on, 
Though the steps be hard to climb,
   And I must do it at two metres distance, or from another room,
And quickly, and in gloves,
   And knowing that my very breath, my touch,
Might infect that which I love.
   And on the drive down I listened to a podcast on MacNeice
And his ‘Autumn Journal’,
   And one thing that was said struck me in particular:
“It’s good when poetry is useful.”
   So yes, MacNeice is useful. He shows how the political and the personal
Are closely knit
       Yet discernible the one from the other; and how to be a philosopher and a “sensuous man”
    And make the two things fit.
       The world is wider than a phone can capture, and after every wave that you can see
    There is another wave, a hundred,
       And one of the waves building somewhere over the horizon (or nearer to the shore?)
Is the one that will drag you under. 
   And on the A22 the trees are thickening their branches against the sky,
And on the heath the gorse
   Is a ferocious, untrammelled explosion, caught and held just so,
And in Paris the Bourse
   And in London the Stock Exchange plummet and rally
And plummet again,
   And it seems we must hope that this engine we’ve built
Can stand the excess strain,
   And that the falling castle which has never fallen
Will be standing when all this is done
   Or that what remains of the castle can be reused
To build a new and a better one.
   We need to learn to count, and to learn what counts, 
We need to learn to move beyond the quid pro quo,
   We need the lesson of the bees in the garden – which perhaps
Even the frantically flower-fucking bees don’t know –
   That there are more flowers than bees in the garden.


March is nearly over, the people
   Back not from holiday, but from long-planned
Work trips, are mostly just relieved to be home. There is no
   Joie de vivre, none at all. It is absolutely banned.
Then it's Monday and back to the working week, which means a stiff neck from a non-ergonomic chair, email
   And Zoom.
And the frantic tidying of shelves behind where you sit in your 
   Office-cum-bedroom-or-living room
And the student’s lecture in bed that they’re somehow all the same late for,
   And the pupil’s virtual lesson
And the Catholic sinner’s miraculously authorized 
   Straight-to-the-Big Man confession,
And the poolhalls standing empty, the squash courts, saunas and lidos,
   And the barbers and bowling alleys,
And the beauty parlours, the nail salons and the winebars,
   And the chapels in the valleys,
Which means where are all the people? They are at home, of course
   And the crucial distinction now
Is not between the jobless and those with jobs 
   But in whether or not you have to leave the house.`
And here’s another distinction: not the skilled vs unskilled workers
   Of last year’s benighted points-based system
But the starker split – the gulf, in fact – between essential and inessential workers
   And therein lies true ‘social distance’
The distance now is between those who hold society together, ventilate it,
   Underpin and help it grow,
And those who merely harvest its pollen, siphon off profits,
   To lay down like last year’s Bordeaux.
And our world has become an inside-and-outside world, and our front door
   Is a kind of Rubicon
Crossed only to fetch in the prudently set down deliveries
   Or for our daily walk or run
Let the doorstep be a place of communication!
   Let us stand there and clap!
Let us look up and down the road and see where
   Our lives converge, connect and overlap!
And the garden centres preparing to throw out millions of plants unplanted
   And the fruit that will rot on the bough 
And the bankers being asked to shelve billions in bonuses (poor them!)
   And the goats running wild in Llandudno town,
And we know the government has acted but that thousands of small
   Companies will go to the wall,
Which leads one to ask, what are companies, banks and jobs
   What are governments even for?
What will there be when we emerge from this silent crisis
   And its welter of invisible adversities?
Will there still be theatres, cinemas, bookshops, galleries?
   Will there still be universities?
Will the standard of intellectual and cultural living find its level? For though it’s 
   Easy to say
There will be singing about the dark times, the singers need
   Somewhere to play,
And morning brings the sound of birdsong in the garden 
   And the gleam of frost on the lawn, 
For this still-cold spring is silent but for the birdsong, 
   And the far cries of babies being born,
And the rising death toll on the radio, but still the strange tenor of this murderous crisis
   Is its wild invisibility,
It is nowhere to be seen, not from the window, or on the news,
   It approaches us only
In messages on social media, 
   Where somebody’s loved one has died,
And we count the degrees of separation between that person and us, 
    And so it spreads through our lives,
There are no corpses, no body bags, no visual correlation that might
   Help to diminish
The dizzying disconnection to the fact that right now, in Britain, someone dies
   Every two-and-a-half minutes,
I think forward to when this is all over, how easy it will be to forget what it was like, 
   For it was like nothing at all, a weightless dream,
It is the nurses and doctors who will be like soldiers back from the trenches, 
   Unable to talk about what they have seen,
For we wouldn't believe them if they did try to tell us, we’d be too busy 
   Turning our face to wall
Or trying out our favourite steps
   For the upcoming governor's ball,
And April is upon us now, and most of us are still to find out
   If we will rise to the challenge it holds, or become unstuck
We who have been lucky so far, but can not be sure if we’ve laid up
   Enough time, and luck.


April has come and I wake
   But I cannot think with joy of the future, 
For something there is abroad that can take 
   That future away; it takes it silently
And it’s moving closer, not yet in my street
   But in my timeline: 
The retweet of the desolate tweet
   That a parent, a partner, a cousin has died.
And if MacNeice wonders
   Whether “the conditions of love will be changed” and “affection not lapse to narrow possessiveness”
Then as for me I’m under
   No illusion about our ability to shed that particular skin.
And yes, Louis, alright: April has come, it is hers,
   Whose blood lifts a notch in the spring,
But whose nature prefers
   The more stringent glories of summer,
The pure straight hit of sun and heat,
   Not for the leaves stunned to life on the trees
But for the joy of sandals on feet
   And sunglasses nestled tangled in hair,
And so I give her this month and the next… and the next…
   Though they are likely to be ours to share in any case,
As we face the new and strange context
   She with even temper and hopes, and – even – plans.
So I am glad
   That my life is circumscribed by hers, with her concentration, and ambitions
More complex and far-reaching than any I can claim I’ve had,
   Who is more ready to rhyme beauty with duty;
Whose mind is like a shuttle on a loom,
   Endlessly interweaving threads the rest of us cannot see,
Whose eyes glint like irony sequestered in the gloom,
   Whose laugh is a field-full of birds taking all at once to the skies.
To whom I send my thanks
   That this our life as it unfolds offers unexpected vistas both behind us and – glimpsed – ahead,
And if there are blanks
   Then those are there for us to fill,
Together, not alone, 
   Walking a beach that seems to roll from Scotland to Essex to Cornwall to Greece,
And as we walk we’ll stop and bend and count each numbered stone
   Slipping only the most superb – the most stony– into our pockets.
And perhaps it was easier for MacNeice
   To make Canto IV of Autumn Journal a love poem,
For his subject was not there to hear, and to police
   His words – and you are. So here goes:
Frivolous, when you feel like it, early for every flight,
   Frowning only at your own thoughts, taking particular notice
Of wicked trainers and the occasional handbag, for your work wardrobe is tight-
   ly constrained: a carousel of cardigans speaking equally to competence and style,
Rarely untidy, if we overlook the correct loading of a dishwasher, often elegant,
   Wearing your first grey hairs like a newly awarded degree
On occasion too easily hurt, though never arrogant,
   With your love that needs provoking, which is itself provoking,
For married or long-term love is a form of knowledge that comes mixed
   With not-knowing, 
And how those elements are arrayed is not fixed,
   And is itself unknowable, which is part of the joy. 
Who won’t talk about films or plays once seen, or chit-chat
   About books you’ve read,
Who presses her feet sole-flat
   Against mine for warmth in bed.
And now I must speak of last night’s news, that the prime minister is in intensive care,
   Which makes the ideal thought experiment for those of us absolutely opposed
To his party and his policies. Does he deserve our ‘thoughts and prayers’?
   No, not especially. It’s possible to wish him a speedy recovery
And still fervently wish he was not in charge at this of all times,
    For there are plenty of others more deserving of our sympathy,
The families of the five bus drivers who have died, now nine.
They, like him, deserved better leadership than was available,
Likewise the doctors, nurses and carers dead from the virus, or desperately ill,
Or still working their twelve-hour shifts, their sixty-hour weeks,
With missing or shoddy protective equipment. Mere good will
Is not enough for them; does he want some of it too?
And tonight the full moon fills the street, and no sound,
But a Chopin Nocturne sifting faintly from the speakers,
No clapping for Boris, but all around
The silence of houses folding in on themselves, for comfort.
And you, unloading the dishwasher as I write; I can hear the clink
   Of cups and knock of cupboard doors,
This house will fold around us, and I think,
I hope, we’ll live in it until it kicks us out.

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